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Photographing food

A very gloomy Thursday here. And I’m going to share something different today. I gave you a hint in my previous post. Today, I present you my husband. They guy behind the camera and almost all the photos in this blog. He’s going to tell you how he shoots the photos for my blog. Since I’ve gotten some compliments about it, so I think it might be a good idea to talk about it a little bit. As you can see (if you’re my reader) the food photos in my blog look very basic, natural and bright (but trust me, it’s not as easy as it looks to take these photos, I’ve tried few times and gave up :P). Sure I like to look at darker and moody food photos as well. But I think bright photo is so me. And even though my husband isn’t specialist in food photography and I don’t own that many props but at least I still have decent photos to look at (and even managed to get compliments on them). If you have interest in photography too you can visit his blog here. Or his flickr. And don’t worry, I’ll post about the apple pie here. – Ridha

Apple pie

As some of you may know I, Ridha’s husband, takes most of the photos for her blog here. Since people seem to like the photos she has asked me to do a guest post about my methods. I’m going to start at a very basic level, so hopefully those of you who are completely new to photography will still be able to follow along. If there are any questions afterwards I’m happy to answer them in the comment section or if you prefer to email me privately. Right, let’s get started.

This is how you don't want your food to look.

This is what you don’t want your food to look like.

For the purpose of this little tutorial I’m using photos that I took of a tasty apple pie that my wife made (I’m sure she’ll have a post on how to make it as well). Above you can see the kind of results most people get when they start photographing food. Actually it might be a bit better than that since I’ve fixed it up a bit in Lightroom as well – we’ll talk more about that later. What we have is a lovely pie lit by the horrendous light of a bare bulb hanging from the kitchen ceiling. The light is flat, harsh and makes the food look kind of tasteless. Let’s see what we can do to improve on this.

The gear

First you’ll need a camera, preferably one that let’s you take manual control over all the exposure settings. If you have a DSLR (probably Nikon or Canon) that will be the M setting on your PASM dial. The reason we want to use manual controls is that we’re going to use flash. We’re not talking about the terrible flash on your camera here, we’re going to get it off the camera and that will open up a whole new world. Obviously the second thing you’ll need then is a flash. There’s a ton of flashes out there to choose from so it can be a bit intimidating when you’re just getting started. In order to keep your wallet happy I would suggest that you get an all manual flash, it’s not a scary as it seems. You can read a bit about the ones I use here (very cheap) and here (a bit more expensive but also more reliable).

Flash bounced on wall

The flash is on camera and bounced on a white wall to camera right.

The simplest way to use your flash is to simply put it in the hotshoe of your camera. However, you don’t want to point it at the thing you’re shooting, instead you want to point it at a nearby wall or ceiling. You can see an example of that in the shot above here. I’m sure you can see what a huge improvement this is over the previous photo with only the kitchen light. All of a sudden we can now see that the food has shape and depth and it looks a lot more appetizing.

While this is certainly a big improvement there are still some major limitations. For starters you need a wall that’s reasonably white, otherwise your light will pick up other colours. The light will also change if you move around and if you’re using a manual flash you might have to change the power output to keep things consistent. Hence, our next step is to get that flash off the camera.

There are many ways to trigger your flash off camera and, depending on what camera or flash you might already own, it’s possible that you already have the capability without the need to get any more gear. The cheapest way to trigger an off camera flash is with a cable. I use one of these and connect it to the camera with one of these. There’s also the option of radio triggers but that will set you back quite a bit more. Once you have a way to trigger your flash you’ll probably want something to put it on and I would recommend a stand like this with one of these umbrella swivels – cheap and won’t take up much space. Now, you could keep using walls but it’s nice to have a bit more control and freedom than that, so the final piece of gear we’re going to use today is an umbrella. An umbrella is the cheapest and simplest light modifier you can use. What it does is to make the light softer, so you don’t get those harsh shadows a bare flash would produce.

All this gear are just suggestions to give you a starting point, otherwise it’s easy to get lost.

Setup 1

A simple setup with a flash in an umbrella behind the food.

Controlling the light

In the above photo you can see how the umbrella is set up behind the food we want to shoot. I’ve found that light that’s coming in a bit from behind like this is often the most flattering for food but the beauty of having a setup like this is that you can move it around and try lots of different ways to light things. Below are the result from shooting with this setup.

Flash in an umbrella.

Flash in an umbrella.

As you can see the result is very similar to what we got with a flash bouncing on the wall. The difference is that we can now easily move it around to suit our needs. Again, notice how much more shape and depth we get in our picture compared to a light in the ceiling or a flash pointing directly at the food.

Most of the time when using flash you don’t want any other light disturbing the scene, especially not artificial light from whatever lamps you may have in the room. The way to avoid that is to set your camera to manual and use the fastest shutter speed it will sync at. This varies between cameras but it’s usually around 1/200 of a second. You also want to make sure you’re at base ISO, which is usually 100 or 200. You can then vary the aperture to achieve the effect you want (do you want a lot in focus or just a little?) and adjust the power of the flash until you get everything nicely exposed.

What all this will do is that it will effectively kill off all the ambient light and the only thing the camera will see is what the flash lights. That’s because the flash is a near instantaneous light, so it basically ignores the fast shutter speed while the ambient light isn’t strong enough to expose much during such a short time (remember, around 1/200 of a second).

All this can get a bit technical and overwhelming but if you’re willing to learn I suggest you take a look at Lighting 101 over at Strobist.com. Everything is explained much clearer and more in-depth there than what i can do here. It’s where I first started learning about these things around 3 years ago.

There’s one more simple thing we can do to help the light a bit. You might have noticed that the shadows can become quite dark on the side opposite to the light. We don’t need another flash to solve that problem, instead we simply bounce a bit of light back. That opens up the shadows nicely and you can see the result below.

Flash in an umbrella together with a reflector to fill out the shadows.

Flash in an umbrella together with a reflector to fill out the shadows.

If this is better or not will depend on the look you’re after; sometimes you might want a moodier look and then you can just leave the shadows as they are. With a reflector bouncing light back at the subject you get a more open, airy and brighter feeling.

Setup with an umbrella and reflector.

Setup with an umbrella and reflector.

What you use as a reflector doesn’t really matter. The one you see in the setup shot above is actually way to big since it’s something I use for portraits. There are much smaller and cheaper ones available or you can crinkle up some tin foil or even just fold a sheet of paper and put it in front of the food. Below is another example of a shot with and without a reflector.

No reflector.

No reflector.

With reflector.

With reflector.

Again, these are two different looks and there’s no right or wrong. I tend to fill the shadows a bit for the photos I do for this blog, it just suits the overall feeling better.

If you don’t have a flash or can’t afford one, you can still get results similar to these with natural light. What you’ll need is a nice big window where you can get some soft light. In order to soften the light (if you have direct sun coming though) is to hang some thin, white fabric over it. Everything I said about reflecting light back still applies. What you have to remember is that the light won’t be as bright as that from a flash, so I would advice that you use a tripod to keep your camera steady.

Find your angles

Once you have that nice looking light you can start shooting without restrictions. Take advantage of that and move around, try different angles, get close; small adjustments in the way you angle your camera can have a big impact. You don’t need to get everything in frame either, go close and get some details. Here are some different examples.

Apple pie

Apple pie

Apple pie

As you can see, I also tend to shoot with a fairly shallow DOF (Depth Of Field). It tends to create more depth in the shot than if everything is in sharp focus. The way to accomplish this is to use a large aperture, which means a small f-number – a bit reverse thinking there.

Editing your photos

No matter what camera you have or how good your light is, chances are that you may still want to edit your photos. Being able to edit your photos is not an excuse to be sloppy with them, get everything as good directly in camera as you can. However, it does provide a chance to take your images to the next level.

There are lots of options when it comes to what software to use for your editing. Personally I use Lightroom and find it to be very good for both organizing and editing. There are usually 30-day trials you can download for most of these programs, so don’t be shy to try some different ones.

Let’s look at an examples of the kind of improvements you can achieve.

Before: Jpeg straight from camera.

Before: Jpeg straight from camera.

Apple pie

After: Edited in Lightroom. Notice the warmer tone and greater contrast that makes the image pop.

Using proper editing software is another thing that can be a bit overwhelming at first. I’m going to center this around Lightroom, because that’s what I’m familiar with myself. However, most of it should apply to other programs as well, though the names of the various settings may differ.

One thing to note about these settings, and all that will follow, is that there is no right or wrong. A lot of people want a magic bullet, a preset that they can apply to everything and always get good results. The truth of the matter is that there are no such settings. Each photo requires different considerations and every photographer will have different taste. You just have to experiment.

The first things to look at is the white balance and the exposure. Do you want the image to have a warmer or cooler colour? Is the overall image too bright or too dark? I’m sure there are different views on this but I would say that you shouldn’t concern yourself too much with what looks correct; instead focus on what looks good and what you want your image to feel like. Next you should look at your highlights and shadows. Brighten or darken these to change the overall contrast of the image and to bring out more details in the dark and light areas. Just make sure you don’t make the image too flat, we still want to keep the contrast and shape that our light gave us. After that you will probably want to tweak the saturation to get a bit more vivid colours, just don’t over-do it. Finally you should sharpen your image to bring out more details.

These are just the very basic settings so I encourage you to familiarize yourself with all the other settings in your software of choice as well. It takes time to learn these things and you need be patient and willing to experiment.

Closing thoughts

I apologize if this feels rushed but this topic is way too big for me to cover everything, or even a small part of it, in a single blog post. I hope I’ve managed to provide some insight and a starting point though. Feel free to contact me with any questions you might have, either in the comments here or by sending me an email. You can find my contact information on my own blog, which might also be a good resource if you want to learn more or if you just want to see my other work (no food on my blog).

Alas, this pie is no more, it got eaten.

Alas, this pie is no more, it got eaten.

That’s all for me, time to let my wife have her blog back.

/Rifqi

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23 Comments

  1. akhirnyaaaaa suhu fotografi kita buka rahasia juga… kereeeenn, saling berbagi keahlian masing2!
    btw, apel-mawarnya itu lohh.. ya ampun, bisaaaaaa aja deh idenya si ibu chef ini!

    • Udah lama pengen bikin post ini cuma kok ya momentnya belum ada yang pas. Eh, karena lumayan dapet pujian sana sini buat foto2nya, akhirnya dibikinlah..
      Hehehe.. Abisnya selama ini semua pie modelnya sama.. 😀

  2. Kereeennn….. kalau didapur sini mah, makanan2nya udah ga cantik (yg penting rasanya Bung :), dijepret pas makanan baru saja jadi. Alhasil, kamera ikutan berminyak atau meninggalkan jejak jari2…. hehehehe…. malu (tutup muka pakai wajan). Nah, kalau yang satu ini udah professional.

    • Klo bisa rasa dan penampakan maunya sama2 cantik mba… hehehe.. Sama aja, disini juga, terutama makanan panas, taroh piring langsung dipoto. Pas makanan masih dikompor sebelum ditata di piring udah di setting dulu buat foto2nya. Props, kamera dan lampu udah disiapin. Jadi begitu makanan udh ditaruh dipiring langsung difoto. Ga perlu nunggu2 dan keburu makanan dingin. Klo buat masalah kamera berminyak itu BIG NO NO klo dirumah kami.. hehehe.. bisa mencak2 yang punya kamera nnti 😀

  3. Pingback: Guest post: Food photography | Rifqi's photo

  4. Ohhhh baru tau dibalik pemotretan makanan…ternyata sama kayak pemotretan manusia ya mba…heheheb
    anyway salam kenal n love seeing all ur food photography here…*love to taste the food jg sih sbnenrnya* :)))

    • Hehehe.. iyah. makanya klo mo foto2 buat blog kudu nunggu tukang fotonya pulang kerja dulu. Soalnya klo poto sendiri, kadang2 tukang fotonya suka nyinyir ngeliat hasil jepretan istrinya.. klo masalah icip2 itu yang agak susah ya… hehehe…
      anyway, salah kenal juga ya 🙂

  5. Pingback: Rose Apple Pie | Ridha's Kitchen

  6. Very useful post! Great to see it explained with pictures as well. I don’t own a lot of material and don’t really have the budget yet, but the explanation on how to use light was very useful. I already try to take my photos in front of a big window, but I had never thought of softening the light with a thin piece of cloth. That is an easy win! Thank you!

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